The Chinese pangolin is a scale-covered mammal that resembles an armadillo in appearance and an anteater in behavior, though it is more closely related to bears and cats than anteaters.
Once found in forests and grasslands across southern China, parts of Southeast Asia, and into India, Bangladesh, and Nepal, poaching and trafficking have left the Chinese pangolin critically endangered. Despite protections, in some parts of Asia, including China and Vietnam, pangolin meat is considered a delicacy and its scales are used in traditional medicine, despite no evidence that the scales cure anything.
All of the four Asian species of pangolin are endangered or critically endangered, so poachers are setting their sights on the four African species to fill demand. All of those species are listed as vulnerable.
Like its pangolin relatives, the Chinese pangolin has no defense against humans—not even teeth—and its underside is soft and unprotected. Some poachers use dogs to find pangolins in their burrows and dig them out. When threatened by predators such as big cats, the pangolin quickly rolls into a tight, scale-covered ball.
Chinese pangolins are nocturnal, solitary animals that spend most of their time on the ground, but they are also good climbers. During the day they stay in the burrows they’ve dug out with their long front claws—often next to ant or termite mounds—or in passageways vacated by termites. The pangolins might also be the reason those passageways are empty: Termites and ants make up 100 percent of the pangolin’s diet.
After dark, pangolins head out to feed, finding an ant colony or termite mound that looks tasty. Digging into it with its efficient claws, the pangolin sticks in its snout and laps up the insects with its very long and very sticky tongue, eating thousands of insects in one day. When the ants swarm, the scales protect the pangolin from bites, and the ability to close off its nose and ears, as well as thick eyelids, help it deal with its stinging snack.
Pangolins live alone except when it comes time to mate. Females typically bear a single offspring at a time; Chinese pangolin males, which are much bigger than the females, stay with the family until the baby is weaned. A baby pangolin will ride on its mother’s back or tail from about a month old, after its scales harden, nursing and eating ants. Young stay with their mothers for about two years—when they become sexually mature—before heading off to start their own families.